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Columbus Day name change debated for Southampton schools

Nichol Banks, a trustee of the Shinnecock Nation,

Nichol Banks, a trustee of the Shinnecock Nation, holds a sign in support of changing the name of the Columbus Day holiday in the Southampton school district, while Marguerite Smith speaks during a school board meeting on March 15, 2016. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A call to replace Columbus Day in Southampton schools with a holiday honoring indigenous people set off hours of emotional debate Tuesday night among dozens of American Indians and Italian-Americans.

More than 100 people packed a school board meeting where officials were to discuss a 2016-17 school calendar that would recognize Oct. 12 as Indigenous People’s Day.

Students in Southampton, which has the most American Indian students — 111 — of any district on Long Island, had asked the board to take Christopher Columbus’ name off the holiday, citing atrocities against native people attributed to the explorer and those who followed him to the Americas.

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, whose 800-acre reservation is within the district, filled one side of the Southampton Intermediate School’s cafeteria. Some women wore traditional clothing, and one held a sign that read: “Columbus did not discover America! It was already inhabited.”

Representatives of Italian-American groups filled the other side of the room and took turns holding a banner that read: “Please save Columbus Day.”

For two hours, the groups debated history in raw and personal terms.

“There should not be a Columbus Day because he is directly responsible for the genocide of tens of millions of people,” said Gordell Wright, a former Shinnecock trustee. Columbus’ travels were limited to the Caribbean and South America, others pointed out, not North America.

Italian-Americans said they support honoring indigenous people on a day other than Columbus Day, calling the holiday a celebration of Italian contributions.

“We are proud people. We need our heroes,” said Louisa Potenza of West Sayville, a member of the Sons of Italy lodge in Blue Point. “We need Christopher Columbus. Don’t take that away from us. And if you want your day, have it. You deserve it. Every bit of it.”

Talks about renaming the holiday began in October 2014 when seventh-graders in a Southampton history class debated Columbus’ legacy in a mock trial and then lobbied the district to consider renaming the holiday.

School officials did not vote on the change Tuesday, opting instead to adopt a generic calendar in a 4-1 vote. District officials said they would hold community forums about which holidays the schools should celebrate and expected to decide by August.

Other U.S. cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in recent years, including Seattle, Minneapolis and Albuquerque.

Germain Smith, a Shinnecock whose wife is of Italian ancestry, said Italian-Americans should have a holiday but honor someone other than Columbus.

Lou Gallo, the state chairman of the Commission for Social Justice, the anti-bias arm of the Sons of Italy, said Columbus was a flawed “man of his times” who nonetheless changed history.

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